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Names in China

Western names and Chinese names are written in reverse order of each other. Namely (pun intended), Chinese names begin with the surname first.  This flows out of the thought that being part of a group and showing respect to the family is most important; individual identity is less important.   One of the two given names is typically "generation name". The generation name was usually, though not always, shared by all male or all female siblings of the same generation. The other was a personal name. For example, in the Zhang family, two brothers share the given name, Yi.  Each also has a unique given name:
Zhang Yi Wah
Zhang Yi Rong

Two sisters will also share a common given name, Yu, which differs from the common name shared by their brothers.

Zhang Yu Ku
Zhang Yu Huan

Chinese given names can consist of any characters and have almost any meaning. Children are rarely named after someone else as it is considered taboo.  A few naming traditions apply to Chinese given names. For example, girls will often be given names which reflect "feminine" characteristics, such as gentleness, or be named after plants or flowers. Chinese girls sometimes have double names, like Xiu-xiu, Xiao-xiao. This may also be the case for males, but less frequently. Siblings' names are often related. One child may be named "river" while his sister may be named "water."
Unlike in Western culture, Chinese do not often refer to each other by their given names.  Typically kinship names are used, such as big sister, third uncle, grandmother, etc.

Another aspect about names in China is that Chinese women do not take the surname of their husband’, but keep their maiden names throughout their lives. Usually, children take the surnames of their fathers.  Sometimes when there is more than one child, the first child takes the father’s name and the second child takes the mothers name.  Names of teachers are accorded a high level of respect.  For example, teachers and professors are not called Miss Li or Mr. Zhoa, they are called Teacher Li and Teacher Zhoa (pinyin: Bai Lishi and Zhoa Laoshi).

In Chinese culture, it is common to add family terms to people’s personal names as a way to show connection and friendship.  For example, Ronald McDonald is often called “Uncle McDonald” in China. Or, using one may use family phrases in certain situations.  Young people may refer to senior citizens as “Ye Ye” (grandfather) or “Nai Nai” (grandmother) as a sign of respect.  Similarly it is common to refer to nannies and female household help as “Ayi,” the traditional term for “Auntie”.  Or, young people such as college age may refer to their classmates as sisters and brothers or cousins, as an indication of closeness.  So, it can be confusing to actually determine who is related to whom.

There are only about 2000 surnames in use in China today, and the most common 100 surnames are used by almost 25% of the population.  So, it tends to be difficult to identify an individual person, given the population of the country is approximately 1.3 billion people.  If you meet someone that you wish to keep in contact with, it is important to exchange contact information, as it will be extremely difficult or impossible to track that person down with just their name. 

Sources:   “China A to Z” by May-lee Chai and Winberg Chai; Vancouver Public Library; wikiname.com
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